“Even crippled hippies from Oklahoma have a right to sing a song.” – Leon Russell, Shootout on the Plantation (early demo version)
After spending a good portion of his career as a sideman, producer, and as a piece of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, Leon Russell had emerged from Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour (and subsequent film) as a singular force all of his own. A prodigiously gifted musician and a wildly entertaining stage presence, Russell stole the show and then some with his unique sense of fashion and his long beard and locks both streaked with a premature grey.
At some point in and around 1973 or so, Russell seemed to make small retreats just as he achieved superstardom as a solo act. The dichotomy was best encapsulated by Russell and his band selling out concert arenas as a high-energy, infinitely confident outfit while he simultaneously released the LP Carney, an album full of songs that reflect a terrified vulnerability and uncomfortable uncertainty surrounding stardom and all its trappings.
It was also around this time that Russell commissioned documentarian Les Blank to make a film about him. But instead of capturing the standard day-in-the-life of a rock and roll artist, A Poem is a Naked Person gave audiences a portrait of Leon Russell as an artist in transition. In the end, Russell and Blank fell out and the former was upset with what the latter had done with his time and energies and, executing his powers as producer, Russell put the film on the shelf and it was only allowed off when Blank screened it at campus retrospectives and other similar, low-key affairs. “I wanted to look like James Dean and I came out looking like Jimmy Dean,” Russell wryly bemoaned later, also opining that the film was more Les Blank than Leon Russell.
To the last point, Russell was correct in the sense that A Poem is a Naked Person, the title of which comes from the liner notes of Bob Dylan’s Bringing it all Back Home album form 1965, is like most any other Les Blank documentary which uses its central figure or idea as an excuse to expand outward; a sort of quilting-through-filmmaking technique of documentary production. But Russell was wrong in his assessment of the subject matter because Leon Russell’s image was at the time itself so fluid and mysterious; in the highest states of flux between the mega-wattage revivalist minister of rock and roll and the quietly introspective Okie who cherished the solitude he found in his Tulsa compound who also had a raw and irony-free enthusiasm for the Hank Williams songbook and hillbilly songs.
It should have been a landscape that fit Russell like a glove. In the post-Woodstock and post-Altamont world, there had been a bigger shift back to simplicity and peaceful, uncluttered basics. Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding had led the way back in 1967 but later albums such as The Band’s Music From Big Pink (1968) and then Dylan’s recommitment to country roots rock with Nashville Skyline in 1969 (singing a duet with Johnny Cash none the less!) signaled a sea change that all but killed psychedelia. For Leon, his ideal was a peaceful harmony where his various musical influences including country, gospel, blues, and rock could live together in their rawest forms. As a side note, if you ever want to have a religious experience without leaving your house, get dressed up one Sunday morning and listen to all six sides of Leon Live, a triple disc live album culled from the tour highlighted in the film.
But even if all musical styles ranked as equal to Leon Russell, the viewer can determine the very different energies emanating from the opposite sides of the performance spectrum in the film. Leon’s gospel tinged rock brings out a specific type of fan that would likely balk at the music laid down at Bradley’s Barn in Tennessee in late February 1973 for Hank Wilson’s Back, Vol. 1 despite Leon’s deep love for both, which is fully exemplified as he flawlessly executes each song with utter aplomb in the film’s musical segments. This kind of unease was reflected on the album’s original jacket where, predating Garth Brooks’s similar but reverse-directional move to the Chris Gaines pop persona, Leon Russell’s name is all but buried in the production credits and a picture of his face relegated to the back cover (standing next to Billy Byrd where Leon is credited simply as “Hank”).
These different styles of music might have brought out distinctively different types of fans, but, in an effort to show that bad behavior and juvenile pettiness wear many different disguises, Blank butts Leon’s entourage behaving in typical rock star fashion with the good-ol’ boy dismissiveness of some of the session players at Bradley’s Barn, some of which cannot abide Leon Russell’s look nor his identity as a rock star. But change was coming in country music, too, whether the old pros liked it or not. For almost everyone on the hippie side of Leon’s world seems to espouse some kind of leftover 60’s ethos as that decade’s charms begin to ripen and transform, like Leon and the rest of the country, into something else entirely. The sense of relaxed change can be seen in Lola and F.M Watson, the adorable elderly couple who run a floating cabin enterprise near Leon’s Tulsa property. F.M.’s adolescent delight with Lola cooing over his long hair, inspired by Leon Russell’s look as he returned to his native Tulsa to nest, shows how the artist’s good-natured and authentic appeal crossed both musical and generational lines.
Les Blank’s stabs at editorial-like commentary are decent (ie, the consumerism/snake bit and the downtown demolition) and, thankfully, sparse. But, like his other films, it really exists as a true immersion of sorts. For no matter how scant the running time might be, every Les Blank film feels like a destination to a specific time and place that’s good for the soul and his rich and extensive filmography has to be counted as one of the joyous of them all. The wedding of Emily Smith, one of Leon’s most trusted and dearest friends, at Leon’s spread opens up a piece of the ritzy, cloistered south side of Tulsa in a way that’s both bizarre, inviting, and, like Leon himself, quite the spectacle with Leon playing the wedding march and freeballing on his baby grand. Blank creates a sublime moment as George Jones performance of “Take Me” is laid over artist Jim Franklin as he catches the wayward scorpions that have wandered their way into Leon’s empty pool which he is clearing before he covers it into a psychedelic galaxy of color and images.
As much of a portrait of a man, A Poem is a Naked Person is also a love letter to Oklahoma, specifically its northeastern quadrant. Les Blank was really taken with the natural beauty of Tulsa and, during his two year sojourn there, enjoyed many of the outdoor activities while also editing Hot Pepper and Dry Wood, two of his masterful documentaries released in 1973 about zydeco musician Clifton Chenier and Cajun culture, respectively. A lot of it is the kind of marvelous stuff Outdoor Oklahoma used to capture for b-roll footage with lazily meditative shots of nature and the rolling geography which really does evoke a certain kind of relaxed atmosphere that is in no short supply in the state.
The slightly contentious moment Leon has with Eric Andersen is funny and disarming but is now very poignant as the lyrics to “Time Run Like a Freight Train,” a song he performs while sitting in the studio, run bittersweet as both Les Blank and Leon Russell have left us. They never mended their relationship but Les’s son, Harrod, convinced Leon that the film was an important document that needed to be seen by the public. A lot had happened to Leon since it was made and I suppose he saw something of value in it. “It’s an accurate portrait,” he said in an interview not too many years before his passing.
But what portrait does it paint? For A Poem is a Naked Person suggests that Leon achieved the ability to move people like a Pentecostal pastor at almost exactly the same moment he realized he now possessed a power he didn’t need or want. So into the wilderness he wandered, slowly drifting further and further away until he eventually faded into near-obscurity and A Poem is a Naked Person emerges as the musical documentary equivalent of Hunter S. Thompson’s famous passage in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where he waxes poetic on the death of the spirit that infused The Summer of Love in 1967. For in the film, you do see Leon Russell’s high watermark and, in the same moment, see where the doubt and uncertainty caused that wave to break and roll back, never to be seen again.
(C) Copyright 2022, Patrick Crain